Next Tuesday, District residents will go to the polls to vote on a referendum to determine the future course of rent control in the city. Actually only four provisions of the law are being challenged. Nonetheless, those provisions in question would remove controls for several categories of housing and drastically affect the lives of thousands of city residents.
In April, the D.C. City Council enacted those provisions in close votes.
Because of the vigorous efforts of a city-wide tenant coalition, the referendum was placed on the ballot.
The referendum challenges the provisions in that new law that remove from rent control single-family homes, "distressed" apartment buldings, nearly vacant apartment buildings and, starting in 1989, all rental units as they become vacant.
The only qualifying factor for this last provision is that the city's vacancy rate must first reach 6 percent and a $15 million rent subsidy program for the poor must be funded.
The referendum has stirred a political storm among city officials.
According to the landlords and their supporters, the lifting of some controls is needed to stimulate the supply of rental housing here.
"Decontrol would be a boon to the rental and housing industry here," says Thomas Borger, spokesman for the Washington Board of Realtors.
But tenants and other referendum supporters question how many city residents will be able to afford housing in the coming decade.
"No matter how much sugarcoating is put around these provisions," says the D.C. Referendum Committee, "reducing the number of homes under rent control . . . can only mean there will be more displaced tenants."
Of course, the city's top officials also have differing opinions. Mayor Marion Barry not only supports the rent control law but openly opposes the referendum. "I don't think you should run government by referendum," he said recently.
Unfortunately the mayor's attitude fails to take into consideration that a referendum is a legitimate right of the people, guaranteed by the democratic process in our country, as well the home rule charter in the city.
D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke led the fight to retain rent control on most buildings, while Council member John Ray (D-At Large) has been the chief point person for the "exemptions."
Ray says that a program in which "distressed properties" could be decontrolled, in which landlords could receive tax breaks, loans and grants to restore distressed properties, would, in combination with a tenant assistance program, offer the "best chance of decent housing for low- and moderate-income residents."
Passing the referendum, in my opinion, would not necessarily deal a death blow to that program.
The referendum does not alter the program. It simply takes away the rent control exemption that those kinds of properties would receive.
My main problem with the law is that it was passed in an information vacuum that still exists.
While reasonable people will disagree on whether the referendum should pass, from the perspective of the average resident, there is no hard, convincing evidence one way or the other on the merits of rent control.
One side says vacancy decontrol will go into effect for everybody in 1989 because the city's rental vacancy rate is already at the designated 6 percent.
The other side says the most recent vacancy figure is about 2.4 percent.
Who's right, and what methodology was used to determine the figures?
One side says 57,000 people would lose rent control protection in the two years after vacancy decontrol. The other side doesn't know if that is right or wrong.
We need a good study of the city's rental housing market, perhaps even some comparative analyses between the District and certain suburban areas, before these changes are inflicted on a market where renters comprise two of every three residents and the shortage of affordable rental housing is severe.
"We are unable to document," says Fred Selden of Howard University's Institute for Urban Affairs and Research, "just how much rent control hurts or helps the low- and moderate-income renter. Charges are being made on both sides. but there is still a lack of documentation to objectively support those positions."
In the face of those facts, District residents have little choice but to hold their ground and vote for the referendum.